The Dean Legacy | The Nation


The Dean Legacy

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Tensions have cooled since then, and both Clintons have voiced their support for Dean's fifty-state strategy. Yet in a larger sense, Hillary's candidacy represents the polar opposite of what Dean built as a candidate and party chair: her campaign is dominated by an inner circle of top strategists, with little room for grassroots input; it hasn't adapted well to new Internet tools like Facebook and MySpace; it tends to raise big contributions from a small group of high rollers rather than from large numbers of small donors; and it is less inclined to expand the base of the party.

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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On a number of occasions during this cycle, the Clinton campaign has questioned the DNC's authority. The first split came during the Nevada caucuses, when Clinton allies challenged the DNC over the validity of caucus sites that they thought favored Obama. The courts ruled in the DNC's favor, but the showdown in Nevada looked like small potatoes compared with the growing debate over whether to seat the Michigan and Florida delegates. The Clinton campaign's PR blitz in favor of seating them was a clear affront to Dean's leadership. "The DNC rule is the rule, and it's not going to change just because Clinton says we're going to change it," says one Dean confidant.

The DNC has played for time, urging the states to hold new contests or appeal to the DNC's credentials committee in June. "I have to be the referee, and my job is to bring people together at the end, because we cannot have a divided convention," Dean told The Nation. In an earlier interview, he'd said that if there's no nominee by April, he's prepared to get the two candidates in a room together and "work out what's best for the country." Dean, like many Democrats, is hoping such an arrangement won't be necessary.

In contrast to Clinton's campaign, Obama's--with its hundreds of thousands of small donors, Internet buzz and red-state appeal--reflects to a great extent the realization of Dean's ideals. Dean's argument for how to rebuild and expand the party base for the long term found its perfect short-term exponent in Obama, whose appeal to independents and liberal Republicans and talk of "unity" is planting Democratic roots in unfamiliar places. "The Obama for President campaign is what all of us hoped Dean for President would become," says Steve McMahon, a former top Dean strategist who's stayed neutral in '08. "Obama is Dean 2.0, dramatically updated to reflect the emergence of the grassroots."

Stylistically and rhetorically, the brash and rumpled Dean and the smooth and graceful Obama couldn't be more different. Yet the link between the two dates back to '04, when the offshoot of Dean's presidential campaign, Democracy for America, supported Obama in the Illinois Senate race. Dean's advisers admit that Obama is a more inspirational and disciplined presidential candidate than was Dean, able to excite the Democratic base while bringing in new voters, energizing a new crop of organizers and expanding the electoral map. This is borne out by Obama's remarkable performance thus far in red states like Idaho, Alaska and Alabama--places where Dean has invested heavily. "From a progressive who wants to see Democrats compete in all fifty states, you'd have to give the nod to Obama," says Trippi.

In his sprint across the country before Super Tuesday, Obama wisely hit places where the party had barely existed years before. "They told me there weren't any Democrats in Idaho," Obama told a raucous crowd of 14,000 in Boise. "I didn't believe them." On Super Tuesday Obama won fifteen of Idaho's eighteen delegates and virtually swept the Midwest and Mountain West.

Besides a desire to push the party away from a strictly swing-state mentality, Dean and Obama share a commitment to the nuts-and-bolts of grassroots organizing. On the stump Obama is quick to stress his roots as a community organizer and always thanks his precinct captains, who routinely introduce him at campaign events. "Change doesn't happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up," he now says in his stump speech. Obama's organizing has been greatly enhanced by new technologies like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace (Friendster had just arrived when Dean was running). "We pioneered it and Obama perfected it," Trippi says. Obama embraced elements of the new politics, hiring the co-founder of Facebook, for example; but other efforts came from the grassroots--just as with the Dean campaign--as supporters organized themselves online and on the ground. The net effect is Obama's large base of small donors, who are enthusiastic supporters he can tap again and again. Ninety percent of the $28 million he raised online in January, for example, came in donations of $100 or less. Obama has fused a tightknit group of advisers with a mass of ordinary people, creating what Trippi calls "command and control at the top while empowering the bottom to make a difference."

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